When we look at the North West Resistance of 1885, most of the focus is on Louis Riel. He is the one who was tried for treason and hanged in Regina. He is the one seen as the leader of the Metis and the man who fought for their rights and to preserve their culture as Canada began to encroach on their lands.
There was another man though, who led the Metis and today remains a folk hero. He fought for the Metis rights and to preserve the culture just as Louis Riel did. His name was Gabriel Dumont, and today, I am looking at his life and legacy.
The world that Gabriel Dumont was born into was one that was going through an immense change. At his birth, Confederation was only 30 years away and the prairies were opening up to settlers, something that would progress at a faster pace once the transcontinental railway came through in the 1880s.
For his people, the Metis, there was a huge change in their lifestyle coming. Known for their immense bison hunts, the animal was going to be gone from the prairies within decades due to overhunting by Canadians and Americans.
This was the world that Dumont would grow up in and help to shape.
Gabriel Dumont was born in December 1837 in the Red River Settlement of future Manitoba. His father, Isidore Dumont, was the grandson of Jean-Baptiste Dumont, a French-Canadian voyageur. The Dumonts were well-known in the area for their bison hunting abilities. The family would also make an income selling hides to the Hudson’s Bay Company and trading pemmican, the vital resource for fur traders.
Dumont would be introduced to bison hunting at an early age and he quickly proved himself to be skilled in the hunt and as a master of prairie life skills. An excellent marksman with both a rifle and bow, he was also skilled on a horse and knew the land better than most people. He would break his first horse at 10, and quickly mastered canoeing on the most dangerous white waters. Many would say that he could find his way across the prairies blindfolded. By the age of 20, Dumont could apparently shoot a duck through the head at 100 paces.
On top of all of that, he would learn to speak seven languages, including Cree, Blackfoot, Crow and French.
In the 1840s, Dumont moved with his family to Fort Pitt, remaining until 1848 when they moved back to the Red River area.
In 1851, Dumont would fight in the Battle of Grand Coteau, when a Dakota war party attacked a Metis encampment. Just over a decade later in 1862, he travelled with his father to conclude a treaty between the Dakota and Metis.
During this same time, in 1858, he married Madeline Welke, a Metis woman, who would accompany Dumont on his travels as at trader. This year was also the same year his own mother would pass away.
The stature of Dumont would continue to rise in 1863 when he was named the hunt chief of the Saskatchewan Metis due to his skills. Effectively, he would be the last of the hunt chiefs as by 1881, the bison herds had mostly disappeared from the land. During these hunts, he used his famed rifle that would become part of his legend, le petit.
When the Red River Resistance occurred in 1869, Dumont did offer to help at Fort Garry to resist the Wolseley Expedition that was coming to put the resistance down. The offer was turned down and Dumont would spend the next decade farming and operating a ferry on the South Saskatchewan River.
By the early 1870s, Dumont was seeing that change was coming to the prairies. The bison were gone, and the prairies were opening up to agriculture. British Columbia had been promised a railroad, and that would go straight through the prairies and bring with it, settlers.
To that end, on Dec. 10, 1873, Dumont called a meeting to form a new government for the Metis settlement at St. Laurent, which was along the South Saskatchewan River. Chosen as the president of the council, Dumont and the government installed a Metis system of landholding and created a legal code. A constitution was even created by Dumont for the new government. The council also stated its loyalty to Canada and promised to disband as soon as a territorial government was created.
The year the council was created, Dumont had built his first log cabin in the area and began to state that his profession was that of a farmer.
Almost as soon as the council was created, the Canadian government began to state that it was the sole governing authority for the region. Dumont would respond that he was simply forming a local government, not trying to form an independent nation. For the most part, the government accepted this. Inf act, the British Secretary for the Colonies, upon learning about the Council of St. Laurent, stated quote:
“It would be difficult to take strong exception to the acts of a community which appears to have honesty endeavored to maintain order by the best means in its power.”
In early 1875, the council government-imposed fines on several Metis who violated the rules of the bison hunt. Those Metis then complained to Lawrence Clarke, the factor at Fort Carlton, who then wrote to Lt. Governor Alexander Morris, stating the Metis were trying to establish a provisional government and revolt against Canadian authority. The North West Mounted Police were dispatched to investigate but found the charges were without foundation.
While Dumont was not attempting to form a separate country, he was not going to allow the territory of the council to be relinquished to the Canadian government. The Canadian government would not accept any thought of the Metis being a self-governing people, and they started to send surveyors into the St. Laurent land, refusing to respect the land tenure system of the Metis.
Dumont would attempt to work with the Canadian government, sending several petitions to Ottawa by the 1880s asking that Parliament recognize the Metis land holdings. At no point did the Canadian government respond, and Dumont decided the Metis had to protect their land.
In March of 1884, Dumont and several of his councilors decided to approach a man who had become an icon to the Metis, Louis Riel. Dumont would convince Riel to come to St. Laurent area and the two men would form a close friendship as they worked together to protect Metis land claims.
By the time March 1885 rolled around, the Metis had received no answer from the Dominion government. A meeting of the Metis was called at Batoche and several suggested defending their lands by taking up arms. Dumont stated that he would lead the defence of St. Laurent.
The decision was made to form the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan in order to negotiate with the Canadian government. About 300 Metis soldiers were organized into a unit and Dumont was chosen to lead the unit. One reason that Riel tends to be the one focused on what followed was because he was the president of the provisional government, but it should be noted that Dumont was the leader of the community and made many of the political and military decisions.
Dumont would relate that Riel said at the time, quote:
“It has been 15 years since I gave my heart to my country. I am ready to give it again now.”
Amid rumours of a possible Metis attack on Fort Carlton, the North West Mounted Police were dispatched to put down the new Metis government.
At Duck Lake on March 26, 1885, the Metis and North West Mounted Police met. There two sides would speak but this fell apart when the North West Mounted Police shot and killed an unarmed Cree man and Isidore Dumont, the brother of Gabriel. The Metis quickly returned fire and killed three Mounties and nine militiamen. The Metis stated they fired in self-defense because the Mounties fired first. In the brief battle, Dumont was shot in the head but amazingly survived. The bullet glanced off his skull and he would recover from the injury, while still leading his soldiers.
He would write, years later, quote:
“There was a cut two inches long and three-quarters of an inch deep, right on the top of my head. I suffered through the whole war, from Fish Creek to Batoche, shouting in pain all day long. My head bled all night.”
Roger Goulet, a government commissioner, would say of seeing Dumont weeks later, quote:
“When Gabriel came before me, after the rebellion to make an affidavit, he had to remove his hat and I saw that a furrow had been plowed along the top of his head. He told me that it had been done by a bullet at Duck Lake, which had felled him stunned to the ground. It was a close call.”
Dumont knew that more soldiers were coming, under the command of General Frederick Middleton. Knowing he likely couldn’t win on an open battlefield; Dumont organized his men into a guerilla campaign that targeted the soldiers and railroads. Unfortunately, this plan was ruled down by the provisional government, with Riel hoping for a peaceful resolution.
As the resistance went on, Dumont would discover traitors among the Metis who were looking to kill Riel. Dumont would apparently jump in front of Riel when Alexander Monkman went to shoot him. Dumont was not hurt and Monkman was arrested.
On April 24, 1885, Dumont and his Metis met the Canadians at Fish Creek, winning a stunning victory causing Middleton to briefly pause his march to Batoche. The Metis were outnumbered five to one, but Dumont’s leadership allowed them to drive off the attackers and begin a retreat to Batoche.
General Middleton would write following the battle to the war department weeks later, quote:
“I find from the papers captured at Batoche yesterday that the number of rebels at Fish Creek was 280 under Gabriel Dumont. That they had intended to let me enter the ravine or crest and then destroy us, taking me prisoner and holding me as a hostage to assist them in making terms with the government at Ottawa. Their scheme was defeated by my having my scouts so far in advance, which obliged them to fire on them, and thus, disclosed their position.”
Middleton would state that the bullet that shot through his hat on the battlefield came from Dumont, although there is nothing to confirm this as fact.
Dr. Charles Mulvaney would write of seeing Dumont in battle, quote:
“Dumont was not seen during the fight, but one of our scouts saw him riding off after it was over. His directing hand was plainly seen, however, as nobody else on Riel’s side could have arranged the rebel plans or picked the ground so well. The rebel movements appeared to be directed by long, low whistles. Occasionally, they could be heard shouting to each other, keep back, go on, this way, fire lower, but during the serious part of the day they fought in grim silence.”
From May 9 to 12, 1885, Dumont would lead the four-day defence of Batoche as the Canadians closed in. While the Canadians outnumbered the Metis defenders, Dumont was still able to incapacitate a military river steamer and repel the Canadians several times. By the fourth day though, the Metis were out of ammunition and resorted to shooting nails and scrap metal. Batoche was soon captured, and Dumont went into hiding in the area. For the next several days, he would distribute blankets to Metis women and children as he ensured their safety.
When Dumont found out that Riel was in custody, he left for the United States.
As a wanted man in Canada, there were rumours that Dumont was going to mount a rescue mission of Riel from Regina, but this obviously proved to be untrue.
When Dumont did arrive in the United States, he was arrested but a communication from the Oval Office itself ordered his release. Knowing that he was in the United States, the Canadian government did not attempt to get him extradited to Canada. The Canadian government did put a bounty of $5,000 briefly on the head of Dumont, but this would eventually be removed.
There were rumours that Dumont was attempting to launch another rebellion, but Dumont would deny these rumours in a letter to the Montreal Gazette. Writing from Montana, he would state that his only occupation now is to provide for the wants for his family.
Then, in July 1886, Dumont was given amnesty, but he did not return to Canada quite yet. Many claimed that he had taken amnesty just for himself, but he would always state that he never sought amnesty and he wanted amnesty for everyone involved in the resistance.
During his time in the United States, he would briefly work with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show where he was promoted as a rebel leader. He would tour with the company, even riding in a parade down New York’s Fifth Avenue and competing against the legendary Annie Oakley as a marksman.
The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:
On Staten Island, as he posed with tourists, a reporter would write, quote:
“Gabriel Dumont, the only political exile in America, studied the big crowds more than they studied him.”
He spent the next several years travelling around the United States before arriving in Montreal in 1888. He would do various speaking tours at this time in Canada, but they did not sell well. The Ottawa Journal reported, quote:
“Gabriel Dumont lectured to a very small audience in the Academy of Music last night on the cause and incidents in connection with the North West Rebellion.”
While in Montreal, there was oddly an effort put forward to induce him to marry a rich widow, despite already being married. Dumont would politely refuse.
Dumont would return to Batoche in April of 1889, four years after the resistance. There he stated he had seen great changes since he left. Many houses had been demolished and while there were new homes, he said that it was more desolate than when he left it.
Not all news of Dumont’s return was favourable. The Victoria Daily Times reported, and again I apologize for the language, quote:
“The rebel leader, Dumont, having returned to his old stamping ground Duck Lake, talks defiantly and in very bad taste for a third-rate revolutionist. The Northwest rebellion had its rise in cause. If rebellion is justifiable, the half-breeds were justified in resorting to force to obtain recognition of their claims. Riel surrendered himself like a fawning hound, when if he had sought a soldier’s grave, his enemies would have admired him. Nor was Dumont much better than his leader…He thought more of his skin than he did of his grievances…and yet now this man, who would have been a soldier only for these vile guns, is sowing the seeds of discontent among his former followers by seditious brag.”
In 1893, he set up his permanent home in Batoche and he would dictate a two-volume memoir of the North West Resistance. This 103-page manuscript, dictated to friends remained unseen and unpublished in the Manitoba Provincial Archives until 1971. It was rediscovered at that point and translated into English and published as Gabriel Dumont Speaks in 2009.
In May of 1906, Dumont began to complain of pains in his chest and arms as he was on a hunting trip.
On May 19, 1906, he would go for his usual walk and then asked for a bowl of soup. He took a few mouthfuls, walked over to his bed and fell over dead. It was revealed later that he had died of heart failure. Interestingly, Riel’s mother died the exact same day as Dumont. He had lived long enough to see Saskatchewan become a province within Canada.
The Montreal Gazette would report on his funeral, and I apologize for the language used in this quote:
“His funeral was largely attended by half-breeds and Indians, who, in life worshipped the daring, courageous and resourceful old man who led them in the hunt, as well as on the field of battle.”
Dumont would be buried at Batoche, where the North West Resistance came to an end in 1885.
After the North West Resistance, Dumont fared better than Riel in the public opinion. While Riel was vilified by many, Dumont was remembered with much more fondness. For many, due to his life as a bison hunter, he captured the romantic imagination of the time. He was also seen as the one who best represented Metis culture as a fighter and warrior, driven by a concern for the welfare of his people. He has been honoured extensively in the Canadian Prairies, including at the Gabriel Dumont Institute of Native Studies and Applied Research. Gabriel Bridge near Rosthern, Saskatchewan is named for Dumont, as is a French-first-language high school in London Ontario.
In 1981, Dumont was made a National Historic Person.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Macleans, Biographi, The Edmonton Bulletin, The Winnipeg Tribune, Montreal Gazette, Manitoba Free Press, Virtual Saskatchewan, National Arts Centre, Louis Riel Institute, Montreal Gazette, The Ottawa Journal,